6/21/2019Behind The Scenes Of The Effort To Gut The Texas Red Light Camera Ban
Humble, Texas officials worked closely with local media and traffic camera vendors to carve out an exception to the statewide photo ticketing ban.
The Texas legislature in March began consideration of the bill that brought down most of the state's red light cameras. The city of Humble wasted no time working closely with local media, lobbyists and traffic camera vendors to carve out an exemption that would keep the $75 photo tickets flowing for another five years in the town of 16,000 residents. Documents released under a freedom of information request to the Texas Campaign for Liberty -- a group opposed to automated ticketing -- shed light on the behind-the-scenes effort to manipulate state lawmakers and the public.
Tom Broad, a columnist for Humble's Tribune weekly newspaper, penned stories with titles such as "So misunderstood: Humble's red light cameras" as the debate was raging in Austin. All of the information in the piece came from Humble city manager Jason Stuebe, to whom Broad conveyed his opinion of his audience.
"I am amazed at how readers don't seem to 'read' the story," Broad wrote in a March 5 email to Stuebe. "Most of the people below commenting about red lights don't know what they're talking about."
The city manager, in turn, was in constant contact with red light camera vendor Verra Mobility (formerly American Traffic Solutions), which provided a steady flow of talking points and other information created by the Austin-based public relations firm the Monument Group, which distributed material for the Texas Traffic Safety Coalition, a front group originally created by Redflex Traffic Systems of Australia.
"We think it would be helpful to have a quick regroup call with this group (or as many that can join) to talk through next steps and strategy in terms of outreach and messaging," Monument Group director Alan Goss wrote to the coalition members on March 25, after legislative hearings on the ban bill.
Recipients of the legislative updates included Verra Mobility and Redflex executives, lobbyists and city officials like Stuebe. Leaders in a dozen Texas cities compelled their police chiefs and other officers to travel to the state capital to testify in favor of red light cameras at public expense with the event carefully orchestrated by the camera vendors.
Monument's David Pruitt was proud of his company's ability to send "a flood of letters" to each Transportation Committee member calling for the preservation of automated ticketing. Goss ensured city leaders had sample letters to deliver to lawmakers with the instruction "make sure you modify highlighted areas that are specific to your city" so that the communications would appear genuine. With this strong showing, the PR firm projected nothing but confidence.
"It is clear we are in the driver's seat on this issue, and we can win," Pruitt wrote on March 21. "We dominated the opposition and put them on their heels. Our sheer number of supporters, fact-based testimony, and real, hard experience were no match for wishy-washy points presented by a few disgruntled citizens."
Humble's lobbyist in Austin, John Kroll, expressed his disdain for all of the lawmakers on the other side of this issue.
"Also, the governor's office, or rather the 15 year old on this bill... fundamentally disagrees with these systems," Kroll wrote to Stuebe on April 19.
Kroll worked closely with state Representative Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) and others to carve out the legislative exception that would allow Humble to keep its cameras running -- or at least as long as they remain profitable.
"We also don't want to lose money on the systems and do not support provisions that would end up making the systems not financially viable for the city," Kroll wrote to Thompson's legislative director on March 27.
The effort proved successful.
"Fortunately, we were able to get Representative [Armando] Martinez to offer a floor amendment that would allow existing contracts to run through to the end of their current terms -- in our case 2024," Stuebe wrote on May 8. "A big thank you goes to Rep. [Dan] Huberty and Casey who worked with us via text throughout the evening and struck the deal that limited the damage."
It is unclear whether Humble's red light camera program will remain financially viable now that the new Texas law (view statute) makes payment of red light camera tickets optional. Balcones Heights and Leon Valley have joined Humble in refusing to turn off their cameras, while the majority of Texas cities have pulled the plug already.